“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s” Luke Kirby received the Emmy for guest comedy actor this weekend for his portrayal of legendary comic Lenny Bruce, who was famous for shocking audiences with his edgy routines and often got in trouble for it.
So it’s a bit of a coincidence that one of the hot topics on the red carpet during this weekend’s two Creative Arts Emmy ceremonies was the question of comedy, taste, and whether there should be consequences when it comes to offensive and racist “jokes.” The “Saturday Night Live” conundrum — in which Shane Gillis was hired as a featured player, despite a lengthy history of racist language on podcasts and in YouTube videos, leading to calls for his firing — spawned the latest debate.
In a statement late last week, Gillis wrote, “I’m a comedian who pushes boundaries. I sometimes miss.” But Gillis is no Lenny Bruce, and racist language — even under a guise of “comedy” — is much less tolerated in 2019. On both Saturday and Sunday, Variety asked various comedians, performers and writers for their thoughts on the controversy — and the general consensus (at least among those who were aware of the Gillis situation) was that it’s complicated. No one wants to look like they’re trying to limit what comedians say or do on stage, yet everyone agrees there can be consequences and push-back if you’re making racist, sexist or homophobic cracks solely to make fun of others without any larger point.
“My issue with comedian Shane [Gillis] is he said he’s ‘pushing boundaries,'” comedian and Emmy-winning “United Shades of America” host W. Kamau Bell said. “If you’re pushing boundaries, then be prepared to get pushed back against. That’s how it works. As somebody who sometimes pushes boundaries, I’m aware of when I get pushback. Tucker Carlson tried to cancel me three times. To me that’s part of the gig. If you don’t want that, hang out with [noted clean comic] Jim Gaffigan and write Jim Gaffigan jokes. Those are great jokes and they do quite well. Jim doesn’t get the pushback that others do.”
But since Gillis has made a career out of racist/sexist/homophobic stereotypes, some on the red carpet argued that it wouldn’t be right to ask other “Saturday Night Live” staffers to work with him.
“I can’t imagine the cast feeling comfortable to work with someone who you know has publicly spoken like that, or who feels like that at all, even non-publicly,” said “Pen15” co-creator and star Anna Konkle. “I’m thinking of the cast right now. I only listened to one video so I can’t say too much about it, but when I listened, my first reaction was, ‘This isn’t how I connect to comedy. I don’t find this funny. It’s not great.'”
Added “A Black Lady Sketch Show” creator and star Robin Thede: “If you’re gong to use offensive terms for people, you have to be willing to live or die by your words. Whether or not you were trying to be funny, people aren’t going to take kindly to that.”
One producer who wished to remain anonymous was surprised that “SNL” may have dropped the ball on Gillis’ background checks — or didn’t care.
“I suspect their silence [as of press time, NBC and ‘SNL’ hadn’t commented on Gillis] has been them trying to figure out what choices do they have. I don’t think they have a lot of choices,” he said. “I think in this world and this climate, given everything he said pretty recently, and didn’t in any way let go of it, it seems pretty inappropriate. That cast is about chemistry, on days and nights working together. It seems not a good way to start a new season.”
Bell noted that it’s a shame the Gillis controversy has overshadowed the hire of Bowen Yang as the show’s first performer of full East Asian descent.
“That’s such an amazing thing, long overdue,” he said. “This other performer they’ve hired has had these jokes — jokes in the eye of the beholder — that are anti-Asian and other things. How do these two things happen at once and not have people ready for the pushback?”
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” executive producer Dan Palladino said he believed it’s ultimately up to the audience to decide what the market will bear when it comes to offensive comedians.
“The audience should vote with their feet or vote with their ears, if it’s a podcast, or vote with their eyes if it’s a YouTube video,” he said. “Sometimes comics go way too far. Sometimes what a comic says reflects their inner thoughts and maybe you don’t like those inner thoughts. There’s a big paper trail. Maybe you don’t want to put every thought you have on a video and put it on YouTube or maybe you don’t want to record every thought and put it on a podcast. Maybe you want to work out your stuff and then figure out what’s funny.”
“Mrs. Maisel” creator Amy Sherman-Palladino says she doesn’t believe “SNL” didn’t vet Gillis’ background before hiring him. “I’m sorry, there’s too much s— out there,” she said. “I feel like people have the absolute right to be outraged and not watch and not listen, to demand what they want to demand.”
Sherman-Palladino said she fears a larger issue: “If we keep shutting comics down, who’s going to be the ones to push the conversation to the next level? If everybody’s too afraid to say anything, where is our next Chris Rock going to come from? Where’s our next Sarah Silverman going to come from? Our next Amy Schumer?”
There’s a wide spectrum of comics, however — some are pushing the boundaries to say something, and some aren’t. “The brave ones are real comics trying to make a social point and get conversations started,” Sherman-Palladino said. “And sometimes they’re dicks who go out and make a bad joke. There’s plenty of those guys at sports bars that are making the same crappy jokes. You don’t want to hear those comics, but you don’t have to listen to them or hire them. You can walk out of their show. Turn the radio to something else. It’s America.”
The general consensus on the carpet: It’s about context. Boundary-pushing and offensive humor should be tolerated if the comedian is actually making a point. But if they’re just using racist words and impressions to demean another group of people, there’s no room for that.
“Dave Chappelle gets really hammered and I happen to think he’s kind of amazing because what he does is takes some crappy ways of thinking and critiques them, even if they’re his own,” said Lisa Edelstein (“The Kominsky Method”). “But you have to listen to it in context to know he’s doing that. It would be a real drag if a truly out racist got hired on a big show.”
“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” star Rachel Bloom opted to focus on the hiring of Yang, which she feared was being overshadowed by the Gillis controversy.
“I know Bowen Yang, I’m so f—ing proud of Bowen Yang,” she said. “He’s going to bring a voice to ‘SNL’ that they’ve never had before. They are so lucky to have Bowen Yang.”